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By Alan Ng | March 21, 2023

This divisive discussion of race in America is alive and well. Yet, instead of fostering unity, the current discourse is hell-bent on broadening that gap. But there are still Americans who believe in healing, forgiveness, and redemption, as illustrated in Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship’s documentary, Refuge.

Refuge documents the journey of two men living in Clarkson, Georgia: Chris Buckley and Dr. Heval Kelli. When we first meet Buckely, the first thing he does is show off and explain in detail his KKK tattoo. White represents the supreme race, and the color red represents the blood spilled to maintain that supremacy. During his tour in Afghanistan, he watched his best die before his eyes. Upon returning to the States, Buckley joined the Klan and became addicted to fentanyl. Ultimately, he would hit rock bottom when his life became consumed with drugs, and his wife threatened to leave him over his racist lifestyle and addiction.

Dr. Heval Kelli is a Kurdish refugee from Syria. Dr. Heval Kelli is a Kurdish refugee from Syria. When Heval was a child, his father was falsely accused of spying on the Syrian government. He and his family were forced to flee the country and landed in a refugee camp in Germany. They were ultimately invited to be resettled in the United States and arrived in Clarkston two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

As part of Buckley’s reconciliation, his wife hooked him up with a prominent former hate group leader, who then hooked him up with Dr. Kelli. Refuge documents their first and subsequent meetings as the cultural walls between the men are slowly torn down. They eventually turn their relationship into a friendship and then into a more significant movement.

“…documents their first and subsequent meetings as the cultural walls between the men are slowly torn down.”

Sadly, we live in a world that has given up on hope and goodness. A film like this will surely fall on deaf ears from people who don’t want to change or people with a vested interest in keeping the conflict and hatred alive. Bernhardt and Blankenship are not interested in beating that drum. They trace how actual change is good and the ways it improves both men’s lives.

Refuge is a political documentary in that it states over and over again that White Supremacy is real and very much alive, particularly in the South. But rather than blame white people and make them the devil, it simply says these people are not lost and can be redeemed. Buckley is very open to change, and the film starts with his journey to meet a Muslim stranger for the first time and invite him into his home. Buckley, in turn, is invited to some of the Muslim festivities, including a birthday party for Mama Amina, dubbed the Mother Theresa of Clarkson, and featured prominently in the documentary. The elderly Amina serves as an advocate and educator for the Muslim community.

As far as documentaries go, this is pretty straightforward. The narrative is much more educational than overly dramatic. What directors Bernhardt and Blankenship do right is tell an unforgettable story of unity, hope, and positivity. Buckley and Kelli never get preachy or hit you over the head with what’s happening to or around them. The film details racial unity and the small battles being won to reach the final, very lofty goal, which in this case is creating a 12-step program for racial hatred.

Refuge is must viewing for everyone. It’s time to turn off the news and turn our attention to stories and films that offer real solutions for peace. Start here and learn that people can change for the better.

For more information, visit the Refuge official website.

Refuge (2023)

Directed and Written: Erin Bernhardt, Din Blankenship

Starring: Chris Buckley, Dr. Havel Kelli, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

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"…an unforgettable story of unity, hope, and positivity."

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